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Gordon Lightfoot's Black Day in July about 1967 Detroit riots inspires new art

Nearly 50 years since Gordon Lightfoot's Black Day in July hit the airwaves, the tune is providing fresh inspiration for a new work by a Canadian visual artist.

Sculpture is latest addition to Orillia park, themes behind once-controversial song still resonate

A new statue in Orillia, Ont. illustrates Gordon Lightfoot's songs Black Day in July, which told the story of the Detroit riot in 1967.

Nearly 50 years since Gordon Lightfoot's Black Day in July hit the airwaves, the once-controversial tune is providing fresh inspiration for a new work by a Canadian visual artist.

Timothy Schmalz has created a sculpture inspired by the singer-songwriter's Black Day in July, which addressed the 1967 race riots in Detroit. The incident was ignited by a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar.

Clashes ensued between residents of largely black neighbourhoods and police, and members of the state police and National Guard were brought in as the protests and violence escalated. The riots lasted five days, leaving 43 dead.

Song remains relevant

Hundreds were injured and thousands arrested, with businesses left looted and burned.

Black Day in July was released in 1968. Lightfoot's lyrics described "Motor City madness" and the chaos that followed proved to be too incendiary for some at the time, with a number of American radio stations banning the track.

Gordon Lightfoot's hometown of Orillia, Ont. is introducing a second public art installment to honour the legendary Canadian musician. (Fred Thornhill/Canadian Press)

"Gordon Lightfoot really is a role model to artists because he had the courage to sing or write about something that other people wouldn't even want to talk about," said Schmalz.

Latest addition to Orillia park

The artist's one-metre high sculpture inspired by Black Day in July is cast in bronze and will be displayed on a granite pedestal with the song title carved into the face of the stone.

It's the latest addition to the Gordon Lightfoot Trail in a park in Orillia, Ont. named for the Canadian icon.

Schmalz, a figurative artist from St. Jacobs, Ont., also created a bronze work of Lightfoot that was unveiled last October. His latest work was officially unveiled at a ceremony Sunday.

Gordon Lightfoot poses at a ceremony unveiling a bronze statue in his honour last October. Another sculpture will be unveiled Sunday inspired by his song Black Day in July. (Fred Thornhill/Canadian Press)

Sculpture represents 'healing and peace'

The Black Day in July sculpture is a maple leaf that features a scene from Detroit, with smoke rising from the city transforming into clouds. Within the clouds, two outstretched hands — one black, one white — reach out to clasp the other. Hovering above the clouds is a dove.

"It's really a sculpture that's meant to bring healing and peace, and I think one of the first steps to that is acknowledging the actual event happened," said Schmalz.

And you say, 'How did it happen' And you say, 'How did it start?' Why can't we all be brothers, why can't we live in peace?-Gordon Lightfoot, Black Day in July

Schmalz said an exact cast of the piece is bound for Detroit. He plans to have the second sculpture permanently installed in a yet-to-be-determined location in the city next year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the riots.

With the recent police shooting deaths of two black men — Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — in the U.S., and the discussion around the Black Lives Matter movement at Toronto's Pride Parade, Schmalz said the themes explored in Lightfoot's lyrics remain as relevant as ever.

"And you say, 'How did it happen' And you say, 'How did it start?'" Lightfoot sings in the ballad. "Why can't we all be brothers, why can't we live in peace?"

Lyrics for Black Day in July by Gordon Lightfoot

Black day in July

Motor city madness has touched the countryside
And through the smoke and cinders you can hear it far and wide
The doors are quickly bolted and the children locked inside

Black day in July, black day in July

And the soul of motor city is bared across the land
As the book of law and order is taken in the hands
Of the sons of the fathers who were carried to this land

Black day in July, black day in July

In the streets of motor city there's a deadly silent sound
And the body of a dead youth lies stretched upon the ground
Upon the filthy pavement no reason can be found

Black day in July, black day in July

Motor city madness has touched the countryside
And the people rise in anger and the streets begin to fill
And there's gunfire from the rooftops and the blood begins to spill

Black day in July

In the mansion of the Governor there's nothing that is known for sure
The telephone is ringing and the pendulum is swinging
And they wonder how it happened and they really know the reason
And it wasn't just the temperature and it wasn't just the season

Black day in July, black day in July

Motor city's burning and the flames are running wild
They reflect upon the waters of the river and the lake
And everyone is listening and everyone's awake

Black day in July, black day in July

The printing press is turning and the news is quickly flashed
And you read your morning paper and you sip your cup of tea
And you wonder just in passing is it him or is it me?

Black day in July

In the office of the President the deed is done the troops are sent
There's really not much choice you see, it looks to us like anarchy
And then the tanks go rolling in to patch things up as best they can
There is no time to hesitate, the speech is made, the dues can wait

Black day in July, black day in July

The streets of motor city now are quiet and serene
But the shapes of gutted buildings strike terror to the heart
And you say, 'How did it happen' And you say, 'How did it start?'
Why can't we all be brothers why can't we live in peace?
But the hands of the have-nots keep falling out of reach

Black day in July, black day in July

Motor city madness has touched the countryside
And through the smoke and cinders you can hear it far and wide
The doors are quickly bolted and the children locked inside

Black day in July, black day in July, black day in July